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Being successful in your job without having to conceal your true self — it sounds simple and worth pursuing, but in the course of your daily work it’s not always so easy.
My own career has already taken me through a wide variety of jobs at employers ranging from a development aid organization to a global stock market listed corporate and a startup. In a talk I gave at Daimler as part of a mentoring program, I recently explained the basic principles I’ve developed for myself as a result of these experiences. On this blog post I’d like to share five of these ideas with you as food for thought.
My best decision
My career path has involved a number of swerves in recent years. Even a simple comparison of the last two offices I worked in shows how different my employers have been. There’s a world of difference between the office I work in today, in a co-working space in Berlin-Kreuzberg, and my office when I was the General Manager of Kentucky Fried Chicken Germany. My office in Düsseldorf was a big, impressive room that I had all to myself. It was extremely spacious.
Last year I joined up with my brother Klaas and my friend Anke Kaupp, a psychologist, to found a digital coaching startup called TheNextWe in Berlin. Our office is colorful, noisy, filled with people, and incredibly inspiring. It’s the very opposite of the vast office of a top executive. And it’s the crudest contrast you can possibly imagine to my very first work environment, which was a development aid organization in India.
During my five years at KFC, we managed to open almost as many restaurants as we had in the previous forty-plus years. After a successful phase of work at a big company, I started all over again from practically zero as the founder of a startup.
Nonetheless, that was really the best decision I ever made. Of course in the beginning I had to do without many of the conveniences I had grown used to, but today I can at last say with conviction that I have fully become my truest self as an entrepreneur. I’d like to share with you the following five points in order to show how you can find your own pathway to being authentically successful.
1. Don’t hide your true self
It doesn’t make any sense at all to present a completely false version of yourself in order to fit into a certain role or a certain position. If we do that, we risk forgetting the qualities that make us special. We lose our joy in life and thus also our positive energy. This approach may bring us a moderate amount of success, but it won’t make us outstandingly successful. Let’s just be ourselves — either we’ll fit in or we won’t.
During the time I was working at a corporate consulting firm in London, I quickly realized that adapting to the norms required there simply was not my thing. Nonetheless, the time I spent there was not wasted — I learned a number of practical skills there that I still use every day. For example, as a consultant you always have to very quickly learn the ropes in areas that are completely new to you. This agility and ability to act fast is a big advantage when you’re working in a startup. What this shows me is that every experience is valuable in its own way. You just have to draw the right conclusions from it.
2. Listen to yourself, not to others
Nobody can make decisions for you as well as you can for yourself. I’ve often experienced that in my own life — for example, when I switched jobs from the corporate consulting firm to the hip smoothie brand innocent. Many of my consultant colleagues advised me against taking this risky step “into the unknown.” They warned me that it would endanger my career and advised me to wait until I had received my next promotion.
Luckily though I had gotten to know the founder of innocent, who I would report to in the future. I was captivated by his vision and his zest for action. If I hadn’t ignored my colleagues’ well-meaning advice and heeded my own gut feeling instead, I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur today, and I certainly wouldn’t have given my talk at Daimler.
3. Find out who you are
In order to find out what you really want, you first have to find out who you are. The question “Who am I?” is one of the most important guidelines for people who are seeking their individual path. To answer this question, it’s worthwhile to look back at your past history. When you’re a child, you’re initially self-absorbed and you do what you want to do without any compromises, no matter how others feel about it. Then you grow up and are shaped by various institutions and people, supposedly into the person your later life will require you to be. In the course of this process we lose some of our rough edges. The price we pay for that is extremely high: We stop focusing on the things that make us unique. We develop into solid, well-functioning average individuals instead of focusing completely on our own uniqueness.
So a look back at your own childhood is a good starting point for finding out what makes you special. My parents like to retell an anecdote from my childhood about how I got together with my brother and some other kids on the beach and sold shells to the grown-ups. For outside observers, this must have been the moment when it became obvious that I would one day be a zealous entrepreneur. As for me, I needed to travel along all kinds of circuitous routes for more than ten years before I realized that myself.
4. Change your mindset
As we move along our own path, we must have the courage to do what we intuitively feel is right. We have to ask ourselves what would you do if you weren’t afraid? Only too often, a self-limiting conviction keeps us from turning our ideas into actions.
We have to replace these barriers with a new mindset and a more functional belief. At TheNextWe that’s exactly what we do every day. We are the sparring partners to help people think and act in new ways. People often need a coach who can show them new emphases from an outsider’s perspective, because it’s incredibly difficult to pull yourself out of the water by your own hair. But even without a coach, if I’m not satisfied with an outcome I can always ask what I was thinking and what had limited me in this particular situation.
5. Treat yourself to downtimes
If you want to walk along your own path with strength and determination, it’s absolutely necessary to maintain a well-functioning life balance. The overarching principle is: Start with the most important thing! What really counts and keeps us grounded is our friends and family. To make time for them, we need to delegate other things and get some assistance instead of trying to do everything ourselves. Having a successful career isn’t a walk in the park.
That’s why it’s very important to take enough time out so that you can recharge your batteries. I devote some time every week to my passion: singing in the Berliner Domkantorei choir. I can’t wait for this coming weekend, when we’ll be singing Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” our emotional and musical highlight of the year.
I know that Bach isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — you might prefer rock or pop music. And it’s exactly the same thing when you’re finding your own pathway to professional success. Some people want solid structures within which they can grow, but others need room to breathe and creative freedom so that they can be inspired to deliver their peak performance. Pay attention to yourself and find out who you are and what you want. No matter what it is, only if you stay authentic will you be successful over the long term. I hope that with my five ideas I’ve given you a bit of orientation for your journey.